First responder from 914th FES shares poignant memories of 9/11

  • Published
  • By Airman Kelsey Martinez
  • 914th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

The bustling streets of New York City had never been so quiet. The only sounds that could be heard through the thick walls of ash and smoke were the beeping sounds of heavy equipment in reverse, mere blocks from ground zero. It did not matter what you were wearing that day, because everyone looked the same. Gray. The smell of metal, burning rubber, and dust filled the air for weeks to come.

“To this day, I can still see and smell it all,” said Russell Reynolds, the 914th Air Refueling Wing Fire and Emergency Services Lieutenant Driver Operator and union president of the R2-33 National Association of Government Employees. “Eighteen years later, it’s as if it was only yesterday.”

As Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station held their annual 9/11 ceremony, of lowering the flag to half-staff and taking a moment of silence for the fallen heroes, Reynolds thought back to where he was that day, 18 years ago. Less than 24 hours after the attacks, Reynolds was on a bus from Niagara Falls to Stewart Air Force Base, New York. He was one of thousands of first responders to the attacks.

“I wanted to be an asset if I could, whether I was in danger or not,” he said.

He volunteered to deploy with the 107th Attack Wing as a firefighter to assist the Army National Guard in any means possible in and around ground zero. 

“We wanted to be there to save those people,” he said.

Shortly after arriving, Reynolds realized there was no one to save.

“It was something we had all trained for, but never wished we would be a part of,” he said. “It was soul crushing.”

He spent almost two weeks in the city assisting with a support, rescue and recovery operations group.

“I respect the heroes that suffered that day, not just the respondents,” he said. “Those were innocent lives.”

If the support, rescue and recovery searches weren’t done fast enough, the piles of debris and rubble that were untouched would be relocated in hopes of quickly cleaning up the city, he said.

“It is a burden that I have carried on my shoulders for years,” he said. “And it is something that will always affect the way I live my life.”

The tragedy was intense and stressful because it felt like American soil was under attack, said the 914th FES Crew Chief Captain Stephen Check, who attended the remembrance ceremony.

 “It was overwhelming because you can never truly prepare and plan for an attack of this magnitude to happen,” Reynolds said. “All we can do as a country is adapt and come together.”

For Reynolds and Check, they feel 9/11 put life into perspective; tomorrow is never promised, and at any given moment, anything can happen.

“You didn’t have to be an American citizen to mourn for the loss we suffered,” said Reynolds. “People from all over the world flew the American flag as a reminder of our loss and triumph.”

Reynolds believes in time of tragedy it is crucial for people to come together and find strength in weakness.

 “9/11 immediately changed everyday living,” said Check. “This is why it is important to constantly take steps to prepare mentally and physically because it’s not if, but when.”

Now, 18 years later, it is surprising to Reynolds when he looks into a book his daughter is issued in school, and sees that day being taught in history class.

“It is something that is still an emotional subject for me to talk about to this day,” he said. “But it is important to talk about it from time to time to continue healing because there are so many people who have suffered with PTSD and health issues throughout the years.”

Reynolds said that after the attack there were large amounts of hate that surfaced in some American people, but he chose not to have prejudice in his heart towards others based solely on acts of terrorism.

“There was a kaleidoscope of emotions that happened for years to come,” he said. “I hope and pray that we are able to find peace in our hearts in time and cherish each other.”

He said that he hopes to one day find the strength required to return to ground zero. He feels as though this is a chapter in his life that needs closure; he needs to see it.

He wants to experience the location as it is now, with the Tribute in Light, and the 9/11 memorial, “Reflecting Absence” that sits in the original footprints of the twin towers, to know that our country has overcome what happened 18 years ago.

“I know we have been a nation that pushed through,” he said. “We stood together and we were united.”